Windsor/Slough, Berkshire, UK
Haggis (Waitrose Supermarket)
Although I had been to the UK many times before, I had never tried haggis; I seriously felt I was missing out on something. I was in Slough, UK to interview a candidate for an open position in the company I worked for at the time, and mentioned the omission in my list of unusual food after offering him the job. To get to the Slough office, I boarded the Number 81 bus, passing through the Brunel Bus Station (just like on the opening of the British version of “The Office”). For anyone who has not been to Slough, it is a city just east of London that has been appropriately replaced in the NBC version of “The Office” with Scranton, Pennsylvania. William Herschel, the astronomer who discovered Uranus was not born there, but he did die there. It was deemed such a miserable city that the BBC did a mini-series as a social experiment called “Making Slough Happy.” Slough is like a small Midwest industrial city trapped in the 1970s – there’s a Slough Museum on High Street that could take up a tidy little 10 minutes on your lunch break. It is probably best known for the bleak John Betjeman poem, “Slough.”
On one particular day I encountered a gentleman wearing full kilt and regalia while boarding the bus. Looking like an expert in all things Scottish, I asked if he knew a good place in the area to get haggis. Unfortunately he was from Scotland, on his way to Windsor Castle to be honored by Queen Elizabeth on St. George’s Day, and was unaware of where to get haggis locally. I wondered silently why someone on his way to Windsor Castle to be honored by Queen Elizabeth would be taking the Number 81 bus, but I assumed there was a valid reason. We discussed the taste treat on our ride; haggis is traditionally made by mixing ground sheep organs (lungs, liver, heart, etc.) with oatmeal, onions and light spices (particularly black pepper) and then steaming it in a lamb’s stomach (possibly the same lamb who donated the organs). It is designated as the national dish of Scotland (immortalized by the famous Robert Burns poem, “Address to a Haggis”); however, it can be found all over the UK. It is eaten in mass quantities during the Burns Night supper celebrations on January 25 annually. The traveling Scotsman suggested that if I truly wanted to have haggis in traditional style, it should be eaten with “neeps and tatties” (turnip and potatoes, although I won’t even tell you what I was thinking that meant). He also suggested I “take a wee dram” (a small glass of fine Scotch) alongside, but the trick at hand seemed to be finding the elusive haggis. I don’t recall if he suggested wearing a kilt while eating it, but I left mine in my other suitcase.
By the end of the week I was convinced that my search for haggis was not going to bear fruit (or meat). On Thursday I planned lunch with the UK staff, and the new hire joined us. Nigel (what a great British name) arrived at the office with a bag from the Waitrose supermarket and handed it to me; inside were two haggis (haggi? hagisses?) that were pre-cooked and ready to microwave and enjoy. The company that makes the haggis (Macsween) cooks it traditionally, but in a non-organic skin rather than a sheep stomach. Although a haggis in an artificial skin heated in the microwave sounds like the farthest thing from traditional, it was a close as I had the opportunity to try. The taste was amazing, rich, earthy and flavorful. It was like a stout liver meatloaf, and I mean that in the best way. The strong flavor of the sheep organs were slightly subdued by the sweetness imparted by the oatmeal; the onions, pepper and spices gave it just the right amount of zest. It was a meal that brought to mind images of home and hearth, eating by the fire in a windswept Scottish cottage. I wanted to stand on the roof of the office tower and yell, “Freedom!” for all to hear (ala William Wallace), but I thought the citizens of Slough might think I was leading a helicopter exodus.
Just the name “haggis” conjures up images of some creature emanating from the murky depths of some Scottish loch, and the description doesn’t do the taste justice. If you have the opportunity to try it, overcome your fear and scoop up a rich forkful of Scotland’s favorite. If you like dirty rice, picture that flavor with four legs and multiply by 10, and you get somewhat of the idea of how haggis tastes. An old Scottish saying states, “He was a bold man who first ate a Haggis” – be the bold man (or woman) that gives it a try.